In a disgusting display of hypocrisy, former House Speaker John Boehner joined the marijuana legalization movement earlier this week after opposing cannabis reform for decades. Boehner claims that his position on marijuana has "evolved" in recent years, but the move is depressingly consistent with his stance toward cashing in on his political influence.
Boehner declared his new position on marijuana at the same time as announcing his decision to join the cannabis investment group Acreage Holdings as a member of its board of advisors (likely a euphemism for unregistered lobbyists).
That coincidence might seem innocent until you consider Boehner's track record of selling out to to special-interest groups.
Back in 1995, then Congressman Boehner handed out checks from tobacco lobbyists to his colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives while the chamber was deliberating whether or not to support government subsidies for tobacco farmers. That's right: he was acting as Big Tobacco's messenger boy by brazenly handing out checks in plain sight.
So it's no surprise that after leaving Congress in 2015, Boehner immediately took a position as a lobbyist for Reynolds America - the distributors of Camels, which just so happen to be Boehner's favorite cigarettes. It was the perfect job for the politician that NPR dubbed "the nation's highest-ranking smoker" during his tenure as House Speaker. But that title is actually a misnomer because Boehner only approved of puffing one specific plant.
While shilling for Big Tobacco, Boehner spoke out against marijuana - a significantly less harmful substance than cigarettes. But that didn't stop Boehner from becoming one of the biggest proponents of the debunked 'gateway drug' theory while serving as House Speaker.
“I am unalterably opposed to the legalization of marijuana or any other FDA Schedule I drug," he told Bloomberg back in 2011. "I remain concerned that legalization will result in increased abuse of all varieties of drugs, including alcohol.”
That bit about alcohol is particularly galling since Boehner cozied up to liquor lobbyists during his time on Capital Hill. Between 1991 and 2004, Boehner's political action committee took in $110,000 from the Wine and Sprits Wholesalers of America - one of many alcohol lobbies that invested in Boehner to represent their interests in Congress.
While speaking up for tobacco and liquor lobbyists, Boehner tried to silence the will of voters in Washington, DC by voting against implementing a successful ballot initiative to let patients in the District use medical marijuana. Of course, that was back in 1999 - when there wasn't much money to be made in the marijuana industry. Now that state-legalized markets are making billions in sales every year, it's no surprise that Boehner has suddenly "evolved" on the issue.
But his support could prove disastrous for the legalization movement. Boehner's background as a tobacco lobbyist lends credence to the top opponents of cannabis reform in America right now. For years, Kevin Sabet and other members of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana have warned that repealing prohibition would lead to another Big Tobacco. Those fears are a lot more substantial with Boehner aboard.
Only time will tell how Boehner's involvement will influence the legalization movement. But right now, it looks like his "evolution" could see the marijuana industry repeat the same mistakes that gave rise to the ruthlessness and corruption of Big Tobacco.
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